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WATCH: Tennessee Democrats present "prebuttal" to Gov. Lee's State of the State

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is set to give his annual State of the State Monday evening.
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is set to give his annual State of the State Monday evening, but Friday, Tennessee Democrats are presenting a "prebuttal" to the address.

The prebuttal is being presented by Tennessee State Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis at noon Friday.

You can watch the address HERE.

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A transcript of the remarks provided by the Tennessee Senate Democratic  Caucus are below:

Good afternoon, Tennessee.

On Monday, Governor Bill Lee will address members of the General Assembly for his third State of the State. But before we hear from the governor, I want you to hear from me.

My name is Raumesh Akbari. I am the Chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. I am speaking to you today at the outset of a historic Black History Month from my home in Memphis, Tennessee.

I’m here to talk about where our state was a year ago, what our families have been through over the last 12 months, and the possibility of what we could achieve if we work together, if we reject the politics of division, and if we focus on the values that unite us — black, white and brown — from the Mississippi River to Mountain City.

A year ago, many of our families were facing hard challenges: a long and uneven economic recovery, a crisis in healthcare affordability and access, huge gaps in education, and a reckoning with decades of racial injustice.

And then a global pandemic hit.

While it may be tempting for elected officials to focus on returning our state to the pre-pandemic normal. The truth is: The old normal was not good enough then. And it’s not good enough now.

But before we talk about what it means to reckon with our past, respond to the challenges we face in our present, and to expand the possibilities of our future, let’s take a moment to address the pandemic.

The last 12 months have been hard. Per person, Tennessee’s coronavirus outbreak is one of the worst in the world. More than a million people in Tennessee have lost their jobs and more than 10,000 Tennesseans have died.

Just last week, the coronavirus hit my family too with the shocking death of a beloved aunt. I, like many of you, know what it’s like to imagine an empty chair at our next family dinner and to feel robbed of the chance to say goodbye and grieve with your loved ones.

On behalf of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, we understand your hurt and we share your frustration. Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have consistently voiced our concern with the lax response adopted by the governor.

Oftentimes the governor’s interventions started too late, ended too early, and did too little. Our calls for aggressive, science-based mitigation strategies have been met with excuses, ideology, and denial. Too often, the administration presented false choices: between safety and student learning or between a response focused on the pandemic or the economy.

But this thinking ignores the fundamental reality: It’s all connected. The health of our economy and the health of our schools cannot be separated from the health of our people. We cannot have thriving businesses or consistent classroom experiences as long as a deadly virus is raging through our communities.

In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely observed: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” So just as the health of our neighbors affects us, the abuses suffered by our neighbors affects us too.

In that same letter, Dr. King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In 2020, people from all walks of life gathered by the thousands to peacefully protest the absence of justice revealed by the deaths of Black Americans like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. 

These massive demonstrations should have been a driving call to action. Instead pleas for racial justice police reforms were met with race-baiting, fear mongering and a new law that threatened to punish those who were demanding liberty and justice for all.

Whether it’s policing, housing, healthcare or education, we need profound changes that address our nation's deep racial injustices.

Democrats are focused on building a future in Tennessee where everyone is safe and free, with a care system, a criminal justice system, and an economy that works for all of us, regardless of skin color.

There is plenty of space for both parties to work together on these goals, to respect each other's ideas and find common ground, to listen and deliberate so we achieve the best outcomes.

Unfortunately this legislative session has started with the exact opposite: with more extreme partisanship and power grabs.

In less than five days of the 112th General Assembly, Tennessee’s controlling party rewrote two-thirds of our state budget. In two days, the legislature approved a Trump-inspired scheme to radically alter TennCare and they did it without hearing testimony from a single doctor, nurse, patient, or any of the 1.4 million Tennesseans who rely on TennCare. The next week, we saw an overhaul of education without hearing from a single teacher — not one principal, no school board members, and not even a member of the PTA.

We hope this out-of-touch and undemocratic beginning does not set a pattern for the coming year because we have a lot of work to do and we can only solve these problems when we work together.

This year Democrats are united behind a bold path to recovery. This path re-imagines what is possible in Tennessee and begins to address the serious challenges we faced before the pandemic began.

Job number one is to get Tennesseans vaccinated and get the virus under control. Until we can go about our daily lives without fear of catching the virus, ending the pandemic has to be our top priority.

New, more contagious variants have already been confirmed here. So we must prepare to speed up vaccine distribution and ensure it happens as equitably as possible.

And if we want schools and businesses to open — and stay open — we need to give priority to teachers and front-line workers.

But as we move beyond the pandemic, it’s time for bold action. The pandemic didn’t cause the failures experienced in everything from the broken unemployment system to insufficient childcare. But it did reveal that Tennessee hasn’t invested in what truly matters for families.

Families are counting on us, as lawmakers, to confront the very real problems that hold them back from achieving their full potential. These ideas aren’t revolutionary; they’re everyday, pocketbook issues that should unite us all.

That’s why Democrats are proposing Tennessee’s Path to Recovery. This is a multi-year reform package, backed by billions worth of our own tax dollars, to build thriving schools, guarantee doctors for every family, expand access to child care, ensure good pay and benefits, reform what’s broken in our justice system and restore and revitalize our democracy.

The first plank of our path to recovery is a billion dollar investment that puts Tennesseans to work rebuilding public health clinics and infrastructure, renovating our kid’s schools, unlocking thousands of clean energy jobs and expanding broadband to every city and county in Tennessee.

To support the small businesses that have sacrificed and weathered this storm, our proposal would put a priority on hiring companies — based in Tennessee. Our state tax dollars should be supporting Tennessee businesses whenever possible so government contracts create good jobs right here at home.

But it’s not good enough to just get Tennesseans back to work. Our very definition of work — and worth — must evolve. Working people deserve the same freedom as CEOs: the freedom to negotiate a fair return on their contributions to the workplace.

Because real freedom is about more than making a living; it’s about being able to take a loved one to the doctor or attend a parent teacher conference, to enjoy a hobby, and, eventually, retire with dignity.

Too many Tennesseans have been labeled as essential workers, but haven’t been treated like it.

That is why we are pursuing a slate of pro-family reforms, including:

  • a doctor guarantee for every working family;
  • paid family and medical leave for every full-time worker;
  • new affordable child care options;
  • a gradual increase to Tennessee’s minimum wage; and
  • modernized unemployment benefits and cash assistance.

Let’s all resolve to repeat this moving forward: Healthcare is a human right. No Tennessean should ever go broke because they took themselves or their child to see a doctor. But with 700,000 Tennesseans living without health insurance, that’s exactly what’s happening. We have the resources to guarantee health coverage for every Tennessean and we should do it this year.

Similarly, no one who works a full-time job should ever be at risk of losing their financial security because a loved one got sick or hurt in an accident. And no new parent should have to choose between their job and bonding with their new child. Paid time off is essential for families to achieve the American Dream.

Next we have to expand affordable childcare options to the 48% of Tennesseans who live in a childcare desert. We lose opportunities for innovation and huge economic gains when parents have no option but to drop out of the workforce or entrepreneurs put their ideas on hold.

We must also raise the minimum wage. Tennesseans earn $10,000 less each year than the average American worker. As both Arkansas and Missouri have shown us, gradually increasing the minimum wage is good for family security and good for business. Because the economy grows when people have money in their pocket to spend.

This pandemic has also highlighted the need to modernize our outdated unemployment and cash assistance programs. When a person loses their job through no fault of their own, benefits should be easy to access and they should provide meaningful support for the family in need. Ten months into this economic crisis, there are still thousands of jobless claims that need to be processed and $742 million worth of cash assistance for distressed families that’s sitting in a bank account unused.

Across the state, individuals, families, small businesses, and communities have pulled together to make the best of impossible times. And they should be able to count on state government, at the very least, to function better than it has, but more fundamentally, to help tackle the challenges faced by all of us.

Lastly, we should unleash the power of our cities and counties to solve big problems when the legislature chooses not to act. In many instances, the controlling party has handcuffed local governments with laws that prohibit them from taking action on issues, like wages and hiring, plastic pollution, housing affordability and even ending gun violence. The era of state interference in local affairs should end today and be gone forever.

Now, to an issue that affects every community in our state, public school funding. Tennessee ranks an abysmal 46th in the nation for student funding. The average teacher earns less today than a teacher earned 10 years ago.

If you want to understand why 9-year-olds are struggling to read at a 3rd grade level or why school districts across the state can’t recruit the educators they need to be successful, it’s because the controlling party spends less to educate our children than almost every other state in the Southeast.

Tennessee’s broken school funding formula is forcing county commissions to raise property taxes just to cover basic education costs.

Democrats are proposing investments in students that will drive our future success — like teacher pay increases they actually feel, smaller classroom sizes for students who need it, and improved “whole child” services for all students.

By joining together, we can rewrite the rules to ensure every school has the materials, up-to-date strategies, healthy meals, before and after school programs, and support they need to guarantee academic success.

Another important plank of our path to recovery is meaningful criminal justice reform. In addition to police reforms that end brutality and increase accountability, it is time to fix the state laws that trap people in our prison system.

Put simply: We are proposing to make it easier for returning citizens to lead full and impactful lives. Whether it’s restoring voting rights or modernizing our out-of-date expungement rules, it’s only right that Tennesseans who have served their time have a fair shot at getting back on their feet.

We must also turn the page on marijuana. Legalizing marijuana is about more than just allowing recreational use, or potential medicinal benefits, or even the money that can be made from this new market.

It’s about undoing a century of failed policy that targets already marginalized people and perpetuates poverty.

It’s time to end this broken system, regulate the industry so it’s safe and legal, and reinvest the tax revenue on marijuana sales to begin rebuilding communities that have been devastated by the failed War on Drugs.

Last but not least, we must revitalize our democracy so that regular families can come together, stand up to the big money in politics and get the care and respect they deserve. Our outdated voter registration system blocks thousands of us from having our voices heard on Election Day. And partisan gerrymandering pollutes our democracy by allowing politicians to pick their voters when it should be the other way around.

There’s currently too much evidence supporting the cynical belief that politicians are in it for themselves and only willing to pander to their base. We have to do better.

The pandemic showed us that we can safely expand access to voting. So we should waste no time implementing automatic voter registration and adding convenient options, like voting by mail, to every voter in the state.

Our communities are stronger when every person has an equal say in our government.

Folks, our vision is clear:

Whether you're a Tennessee native or newcomer, we want to ensure that everyone can earn a good living and have a good life; that we resource our schools so that every child can pursue their dreams; and that we provide families with the care they need to be well and stay well.

Backed by the courage of those who marched for Civil Rights, workers who won better wages and safer workplaces, young people who started a movement to force action on climate change, immigrant families whose lives enrich our communities, LGBTQ people who push us closer to full equality, people of faith whose service to our neighbors strengthens our state, and, for me especially, women, like Mary McCleod Bethune, Shirley Chisholm and Mary Church Terrell, whose work inspires us to keep fighting against all odds...

We are standing here with an opportunity to remake our future: to make life more secure, more prosperous and more just — for all Tennesseans.

God bless you and everyone who finds their home in the great the state of Tennessee.